In early August, the government of Alberta announced a six month ban on approvals for renewable energy projects. There are reports that this ban will impact 118 projects, worth $33 billion for Alberta’s economy, and affect up to 24,000 people working in the renewable energy industry. Randy Benson, President & CEO of Gridworks—a solar and electrical company in Edmonton, Alberta—is concerned.
“For future projects we are actively bidding and considering, this will have a detrimental effect on many of our full-time employees. To stop a multi-billion dollar industry dead in its tracks along with 24,000 jobs is incredibly short-sighted and narrow-minded,” says Randy.
Twenty-five years ago when Randy told friends and family he was going to leave the oil industry to work in solar, he was met with disbelief and confusion. Many of his loved ones thought he wouldn’t earn a comparable income. His response? “Just watch me.”
Randy used to work in the oil sands as a process operator in Fort McMurray, Alberta, where he is from.
“I was working up North in the oil sands world and I realized that I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t like the shift work—12-hour days, 12-hour nights—and I didn’t like the environmental damage that I was seeing and I felt like I was a part of it,” says Randy.
Randy took an electrician apprentice program paid for by his oil sands job and once he finished, had his eye on owning a solar business.
After leaving the oil sands in the late nineties, Randy self-studied, took courses in the United States where solar was taking off, and volunteered on solar projects.
“I continued working full-time as an electrician and did solar (installation) part-time then. It was around 2005 that I made the decision to go full-time with solar and started to get busier. And then in 2007, grid-connected systems started to take off here in Central Alberta.”
Randy, who has two children aged 7 and 19, worries about their future.
“I have huge climate change anxiety. So does my wife. We worry about it a lot and what’s being left to our children. I feel a little better about it because when they start asking those questions, I can say, ‘Hey, look I tried.’ With my company, I try to do my best to mitigate it. It’s part of my motivation with my work.”
Randy has learned that we can make a living while also caring for where we live.
“For me, it is a business, myself and my employees; this is how we feed our families and pay our mortgages. It’s way more important to make sure that the business keeps going, stays as healthy as possible so we can all continue to make a good living at this, and then contribute to [solving or stopping] climate change and [helping] the environment at the same time.”
As a child, Randy loved exploring the outdoors and his upbringing in his Cree, Iroquois, and Métis cultures led him to move towards a cleaner career, he explains.
“Having respect for the environment was always important for our family. We grew up pretty traditionally, a foot in both worlds, the traditional Indigenous hunting, gathering, trapping world, and then the non-Indigenous world. I decided to find something opposite [to oil sands work], so I discovered solar.”
Gridworks is Indigenous-owned and operated.
The demand for solar is only growing, and Randy and his team are working hard to keep up with what Randy agrees has been a “solar gold rush” in Alberta.
“We’re super busy and seem to be growing at a fairly slow but constant rate, which is great. We’re up to 12 or 14 staff, and we’re still looking for more people.”
Randy gets interest from people looking to leave the oil industry, some of whom train with him. He is also opening another business in the Kamloops area of British Columbia.
“Me and another friend who’s also Cree, we’re opening up a new business, an Indigenous-owned energy advisory business. So all those energy audits that homeowners need to do in order to get federal grants.”
Randy wants to continue to grow his business in Alberta because it’s his home. He will only be able to do that if his government supports renewable energy projects. He hopes that the sun is the limit for what he can achieve.